Wednesday, February 11, 2009

1969 in Hong Kong

I've been away from the computer. Never laid eyes on a screen for over a month. Cell phone too. I used a land line to call home and stay connected with family. I'm home now, and grounded, for a while anyway, and this story told me that it needed to be told. I went to Hong Kong twice in the latter part of 1969. Here is a part of what happened there.

Her name was Yau Su Quen. She told me to call her Suzannia. Suzannia Yau. She spoke perfect English as she was a college student in Hong Kong. Her dream was to some day come to America and she knew she needed to speak the language. Besides, Hong Kong in the late 60’s was still a British Colony and most people learned to speak some English.

She worked at a tailor shop. One of many small storefronts where one can get a custom made suit. She greeted customers and assisted the tailor by writing down measurements as he deftly moved the tape from shoulder to shoulder and every part of the body to achieve the perfect fit.

I wandered into this particular shop on the recommendation from a hotel clerk and another GI who had taken the advice and gone there. He came away with two beautiful suits and seemed pleased. My goal was to get some good looking clothes for when I got back to the world. Back to the world was to go home after spending a year in the rice patties and jungles of Vietnam during the American war in Vietnam. I was there for all of 1969. I had spent ten months in the field and finally took a break and went to Hong Kong.

The Armed forces had deals with allies in the region. A soldier taking an R&R could go to Thailand, Hong Kong, Kuala Lampur or even Australia. I went to Hong Kong because it was available without waiting. I had no preconceived notion to go there at all.It was the luck pf the draw.

All the soldiers fighting in the war got an R&R, or Rest and Recuperation. This was a six day vacation to unwind and not get shot at after having to be on guard in a war zone. Talk about culture shock! One day behind a 50 caliber machine gun, the next in a bar surrounded by beautiful girls. Most guys I knew spent the time drinking and subsequently drunk and buying prostitutional services. This was the big money makers for the hosting countries, booze and women. I will admit, I partook some, but I did not make that the main focus of my trip. I mean I did go into the tailor shop to get a suit made, right?

Another vacation that was available to me was a seven day leave. As an NCO, or non commissioned officer, a sergeant, I was allowed one seven day leave for every year I spent in a combat zone. Since I had achieved the rank of sergeant and was a leader of men, I was allowed this leave and took it. So, I went to Hong Kong a second time because when I was ready to go, a flight was available without delay and I wanted to get out of Vietnam.

The first trip was so pleasant and I was familiar with the surroundings and protocol it seemed natural to return. Besides, I had a friend in Hong Kong now. Suzannia.

When I walked into the shop, I didn’t know what to expect. When she greeted me and spoke English I was surprised. Now here I am, twelve thousand miles from Chicago, my home town in those days, and twenty years old, standing in front of a very young and beautiful women who seemed about the same age as me, who smiled at me, and was able to communicate in very agreeable fashion. I talked about the tailoring and a suit, but talked and talked with Suzannia and quickly made her acquaintance.

We ended up taking a walk later that day. We walked and talked for hours. She showed me around the hustle and bustle of the Kowloon Peninsula. So many people. So crowded with people. Open air markets all over the streets. It was like being in a foreign country. Oh, that’s right, I was in a foreign country. But not in a war with a rifle and on alert fearing for my life. Rather, just visiting and I had a guide to tell me what people were saying, reading signs and taking me to places to see things off the beaten track.

Suzannia wasn’t poor, but she didn’t have much spending money. She lived with her family in a small apartment high above the city. Chickens in cages in the hallway were butchered at the kitchen sink. Herb boxes growing on windowsills. Every bit of space and every resource used to its fullest. The city buses were all double deckers, and they ran in bunches, more than one bus at atime, all going to the same place.

There is a ferry that crosses the harbor and goes to Victoria Island. They had classes of travel. Ten cents bought passage in steerage class, which was below deck and under the waterline. For a quarter you could travel above the waterline on deck. Suzannia had never spent the quarter and used the upper class drayage. Her first trip across the harbor on deck was with me when I paid the fare, fifty cents for "Two, please"

One day while walking, I smelled delicious smells and figured out the sweet frying fat and sugary coatings and fillings of a bakery. I saw a large neon sign. It was a busy sign. A lot of writing, all in Chinese character. I asked Suzannia to translate the writing and tell me what it said. She said very simply, “ABC Bakery” We went in and I gawked at all the sweetness to devour. The clerk behind the counter spoke a dialect that one customer didn’t understand. Suzannia, also versed in the many and diverse dialects of the Chinese, stepped in and translated. It was my turn, and I pointed to what I wanted. Suzannia asked me how many I wanted and then told the clerk.

I was so young and already shocked from the Vietnam experience. I didn’t pay as much attention as I think I should have. At least I don’t remember all I wish I could now forty years later. But I can still see her. She was pretty. Small and slight. Her clothes draped over her and flowed.She always wore a dress that was slender, close to her body. I also don’t remember making a distinction between Southeast Asian, or Vietnamese, people and Chinese based on looks and features. As a dumb American, I saw them as Asian. This time spent in Hong Kong was probably the first time in my life I paid attention to anything that remotely resembled observation, and then it was an insignificant amount I carried away with me in my own mind. But Asian or whatever, if my minds eye told me she was beautiful, I went with my minds eye and I was so pleased to have this beautiful young friend show me around and spend time with me while taking a break from a war.

Seems so crazy to say that, but imagine the force of such a statement. Taking a break from fighting in a war. No wonder most guys sought out the liquor and the promiscuity. Get drunk legally and have the company of a sex partner, all night, every night, while you are young, with raging hormones, and a lifetime of memories and future nightmares to start to try to forget.

As we walked, we talked. I do remember her asking me about my family and my childhood. We compared fathers and their treatment of their respective children. Her brothers and sisters, my brother and sister. Where we were in relation to age, how we celebrated birthdays and occasions. I’m sure I told her I was a Catholic. I don’t remember what or if she practiced any religion, but I’m sure she did.

I was there over Christmas. I went shopping and bought her a gift. I bought a set of hair clips and combs made of Mother of Pearl. She had such beautiful hair. Long and fine, but it shined so. Silky to the touch, wispy when she walked and as she explained things to me and turned her head, I saw her hair bounce and shimmer like waves with no direction but all in one motion, then gathering itself and looking like it had never moved at all.

I can’t quite remember the details, but I know we were walking deep into the heart of Kowloon. I told her I bought her a Christmas gift and she told me she had bought something for me as well. We would bring them the next evening when we saw each other again. We did, and we walked and stopped at a park and were seated on a bench.

Her dark eyes sparkled like shimmering diamonds in the reflection of the night’s lights. Two more stars were her eyes, her face was like a flower. I gave her the wrapped gift and she gave me one of similar shape and size. I said Merry Christmas and it was understood that these gifts were given to celebrate Christmas.

She held hers and I started to open my gift. I was still a child. Not one year before I had spent the Christmas holiday with my family and opened gifts like any child would have, with excitement and enthusiasm, and I was given a gift and wanted to see it, hold it, feel it and grab a hold of a sensation or feeling like I was home, back in the world, with friends and family.

I looked at her and she was still holding her gift. I asked her if she was going to open it and she told me that her custom was to never open a gift in front of the person who gave it. I was devastated and thought that to be foolish. Judgmental of her custom and selfish in my own glory I wanted to see her face and wanted to see if she liked the gift I had given her, and if she was pleased. I look back on that and think about how uncaring and thoughtless I was to argue with her custom. It is one of those little things that I remember doing that haunts me still. I’ll always wish I could do it over, take a mulligan on that one.

She relented without as much as a whimper and opened her gift. To her, I had spent a fortune. She told me she had dreams of such finery and that to receive these items of beauty was such an honor. I felt I had done good. I saw her smile and her big white gleaming teeth added to her beauty. If the world had stopped that day, I was fulfilled seeing her smile and being with her at such a delicate moment in my own development.

It was time for me to open my gift. I tore off the wrapping and inside was a box about six by ten inches. I opened the box and there was a plastic box inside of that with a lid. I opened the lid and saw a book. The book had a strap over the page side and a snap as a closure. It was a diary. Suzannia told me that I had an interesting life and that I should write about it. She suggested I write in this diary every day and tell the story of my life as I lived it.

I remember writing in that diary. On the first page I jotted, in my best handwriting, where and when I got the diary and from who. That is the only page I ever made an entry, the first page. I saw Suzannia the next day and maybe one more brief visit after that and I left Hong Kong and went back to Vietnam to finish my tour of duty. I went home a month or so later and started another chapter of life, life after war.

I did get the diary home. I had it around for years. I met Barb, my wonderful faithful loving wife and still held the diary with the thought that someday I’ll write in it, making those entries every day to "Dear Diary", telling all my secrets and making note of the highs and lows.

Sometime many years later, amidst all the moves, the diary was damaged after a stint in a storage room and it had turned to mildew. The pages were tattered and the entry I wrote, that one page, was still there, but torn and illegible. My finest handwriting was not very good at all. I forgot about the diary after that and lost track of it. It is gone from my life except the memory of it. I have on very few occasions told the story about Suzannia and the diary, but not often. It has been a memory until now.

My memory was jogged as I waited for the train in January. I was leaving for the trip I just returned from, to Cleveland, and took Amtrak. Barb was there to see me off and a couple of friends showed up to tell me they loved me and they supported my actions. One friend gave me a journal, a diary, and told me what it was and what it could be used for.

I haven’t written in it yet. That was over a month ago. But it spurred the thought in me of Yau Su Quen. The fantasy of meeting her again by chance, a fairy tale. A story from whence movies are made perhaps.

I spent my time in Cleveland attending a program at the VA hospital there. I made some headway into survival and I returned home the same man that left, only a little wiser and better for the experience, recalling memories of Hong Kong in December of 1969.


Anne said...

wow. what a memory jog.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing such a beautiful story! Love Sonya

fjb said...

Hi Joe, welcome back friend.:) Beautiful story and beautifully written.

Unknown said...

What a beautiful, precious memory. Thank you so much for sharing.

Anonymous said...

About opening the gift in front of you... the reverse happened to me last Christmas with a Filipino friend. She didn't open the gift I gave her in front of me. I was a bit confused, but followed her lead and waited to open the gift she gave me. I didn't mind too much, even though it seemed strange to me. But I'm not exactly 18 years old, and I have a lot more patience now. My point is, stop beating yourself up about it already. It sounds as if Suzannia liked experiencing different cultures, and even if it seemed strange to open the gift in front of you, she probably didn't mind nearly as much as you think.

Good story.

D.K. Raed said...

nice to see you back. it occurs to me that maybe just having the diary is as good as writing in it. the entries are invisible, written in your mind, but there nonetheless.